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As funding for higher education continues to shrink in some states, more community colleges are considering charging differential tuition rates for their costly career and technology programs.

Most public colleges have historically charged single rates for undergraduate programs, with the idea being that part of their mission is to offer students a range of academic options at minimal cost. In recent years, a growing number of four-year colleges have started to impose differential tuition, not without some controversy, but the discussion is still new at most community colleges, and some fear the impact of such policies.

Pima Community College, in Tucson, Ariz., is exploring the idea after having its state appropriation cut by 30 percent in two years.

“It looks like we’ll have budget cuts for the foreseeable future,” said Roy Flores, the college’s chancellor. “Also, our local property taxes aren’t generating as much because property values have gone down and growth has pretty much been stagnant. As we get squeezed from every corner, I’m concerned about the future of our occupational programs and our ability to respond to people who get laid off and need new skills to get back on their feet.”

Last year, the college’s enrollment grew by nearly 14 percent. Flores noted that student demand is particularly high for occupational programs, such as those in the health sciences and engineering. These programs are often the most expensive to run because of the low student-teacher ratios they must maintain and the costly training equipment they require.

Currently, in-state tuition at Pima is $53 per credit hour. Since Flores only suggested the idea of differential tuition last month at a board meeting and college officials have not had a chance to fully investigate the idea, he was unsure how much more these high-demand programs might cost interested students.

“We’re not going to charge the actual cost of those courses,” Flores said. “That wouldn’t be good policy, and then the tuition would be way too high. We would just want to close up that gap a little bit. We have yet to do an analysis on this, but my back-of-the-envelope estimate would be that there would be somewhere between a 10 and 30 percent premium charged for these courses. And it would be phased in, of course, and not brought on all at once.”

Some of the college’s most popular programs, like nursing, which has a three-year waiting list, and avionics, would be among those charging a premium. Flores dismissed the notion that raising tuition for these programs might decrease student access to them.

“The point is to guarantee access,” Flores said. “The access will be zero if the programs go away. I’m mindful of price elasticity and that some students might be shut out if the price goes too high.… But it’s a balancing act, and we’re a long way from shutting people out.”

Flores also pitched another differential tuition idea to his board last month. He wants to give students who take any courses during “off-peak” hours a small tuition break. This, he said, would encourage better use of the college’s resources. Those taking courses during “peak” hours would just pay the standard tuition.

“Not all times of the day are created equal,” Flores said. “That’s equally true of demand for classes. We want to try to lower costs for taking classes at certain times. This is just a tuition incentive, but we’re also exploring other ideas to see what would encourage our students to take classes at these traditionally off hours, such as on Friday or in the afternoon lull.”

Other incentives being considered, in addition to a slight tuition discount, are preferential parking spaces and preferential enrollment in nearby daycare centers.

In states like Arizona, where there is no state community college board or coordinating board for all of public higher education, individual institutions and community college districts can set their own tuition policies.

Researchers are unsure how common differential tuition is at community colleges. The University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center, however, conducted a survey of state community college directors last year revealing that local boards determine tuition for community colleges in 21 states. This method makes differential tuition more likely. In these states, researchers indicate that more community colleges may consider it in the near future, if state funding does not rebound.

“I fear that the uncertain funding environment is forcing open access institutions toward a private benefits model, where individuals pay more for benefits they and not the society receive,” wrote Steve Katsinas, professor and director of Alabama’s Education Policy Center, in an e-mail. “Higher fees associated with more expensive, specialized curricula including auto [computer-aided design], engineering technology and allied health are not new. But we may be at a ‘tipping point,’ given the deep cutbacks over the past three decades in state funding. As state funding declines, the challenge of spreading the higher costs of these more expensive lower enrollment programs across the total enrollments is much more challenging. The unprecedented fiscal pressures are forcing institutions to squeeze every dollar that they can possibly find, shifting more costs on the backs of students and their families.”

Still, those community colleges that have charged differential tuition for a few years now say the experiment has been a success.

Aims Community College, in Greeley, Colo., has had an increased tuition rate for a few of its workforce programs for about five years. Last year, it introduced a three-tiered differential tuition system for these programs on top of a lower rate for other programs.

The regular tuition rate for courses at the college is $65.40 per credit hour. Tuition for fire science and communications media is $115 per credit hour; tuition for the surgical technology program is $120 per credit hour; and finally, tuition for aviation, radiologic tech and nursing is $125 per credit hour.

“We do an analysis of programs costs each year, and some programs are more costly to operate than others,” said Dan Erbert, the college’s budget director. “Rather than raise tuition significantly for everything, we thought we’d do a slight [increase] for those that are more expensive to operate to spread out the cost. Also, with these more expensive programs, students are more likely to be able to find gainful employment at a higher salary so that they’ll be able to pay.”

Aims is one of two community college districts in Colorado that are run by its own local boards and, therefore, have the authority to levy local property taxes and implement differential tuition for certain programs. The other 14 community colleges in the state are run by the Colorado Community College System, which sets their tuition.

Erbert explained that he considered the college’s recent adoption of a three-tiered differential tuition system last year a success thus far.

“We haven’t lost any students because of this,” Erbert said. “And in terms of success, on the bottom line, we’re better off than we would have been if we hadn’t done this. From a $40 million budget, we had to cut $2 million last year. And we’re looking to cut more this year. We would have had to cut more if we didn’t have another mechanism, like differential tuition, to help us out.”

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